What I hear: USA TODAY Sports̵
Choosing NBA All-Star starters is easy.
It’s hard to pick reserves, and it’s up to NBA coaches to make the decisions.
When the All-Star reserves in 2021 are announced Tuesday on TNT, worthy players will be rewarded for the seasons they have. See you, Damian Lillard.
Also, players who have All-Star seasons will not be named to the team because it will be a number. Gordon Hayward, Tobias Harris and Mike Conley could be left out.
For the Western and Eastern Conference reserves, coaches select two backcourt players, three in frontcourt and two wildcards.
USA TODAY NBA writers Jeff Zillgitt and Mark Medina choose their reserves:
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics: Brown did not have much time to work on his game between the bubble and the start of this season, but a constant improvement can be seen. He averages a career-high in points (25.5) with more than five points above his previous high, a career-high in assists (3.9) and shoots career-best off the field (49.7%) and at 3-pointers ( 40.9%). This would be his first All-Star appearance.
James Harden, Brooklyn Nets: The Nets are 13-5 with Harden looking to have found a good spot along with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Harden averages 24.9 points, 11.1 assists and 7.3 rebounds on strong shooting gaps, including 50.2% from the field and 41% on 3s with Brooklyn.
Julius Randle, New York Knicks: The Knicks have not had an All-Star since Kristaps Porzingis in 2018. Randle should be nodded this season for his role in making the Knicks an improved team. Career year statistics across the board for the 26-year-old big man: 23.3 points, 11 rebounds, 5.5 assists per game. Match and shoot 48.1% from the field, 41% on 3s and 80.5% on free throws.
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic: One of the NBA’s underrated – and perhaps implied – stars, Vucevic also has a career season with a personal best of 24.1 points per game and a personal best of 40.5% on 3s. He also averages 11.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and shoots 48.1% off the field. He is tied for third in double-double with 22.
Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks: Forget Milwaukee’s relatively slow start. This is what Middleton gives the Bucks on a nightly basis: 20.5 points, six rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.1 steals and 50.5% shooting from the field, 43.1% on 3s and 89.5% on free throws. Not flashy, but All-Star worthy.
Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers: You could argue that Harris has been the Sixers’ second-best player this season. Harris, who averages 20.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists, is another player close to the 90/50/40 line – 51.3% off the field, 40.3% on 3s and 89s, 4% from the line. No surprise he flourishes under Doc Rivers, also his coach from their Clippers days.
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls: The Bulls wing is another player who has a career-best season in scoring and shooting. He is sixth in the league by scoring with 28.9 points per game and shoots 51.8% from the field, 42.9% on 3s and 86.2% on free throws – another player near the 50/40/90 line . He is also one of three players with an average of at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists.
Notable exceptions: Ben Simmons (76ers), Gordon Hayward (Hornets), Domantas Sabonis (Pacers), Jayson Tatum (Celtics), Bam Adebayo (Heat), Trae Young (Hawks).
– Jeff Zillgitt
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz: I voted for Mitchell as a starter as he represents a major reason why the Utah Jazz (24-6) have the Western Conference’s best record. There is no doubt that coaches will vote Mitchell as a reserve. He is in pace to finish this season with a career high in points (24.6). His coaches and teammates have also praised Mitchell for his improved decision-making and leadership.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: Lots of NBA experts, including US DAY NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt, claimed that Lillard should have been a starter. Although I chose Mitchell over Lillard, the Trail Blazers’ star deservedly nodded over Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic. Either way, Lillard will receive plenty of votes from NBA coaches to become an All-Star reserve. Lillard has kept Portland as a playoff challenger with consistent scoring and playmaking, while the Trail Blazers have cared for significant injuries earlier this season to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic.
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz: Gobert has cemented himself as a favorite to win his third NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. Gobert is number two in the NBA in blocks (2.7) and third in rebounds (13.4). He has also overseen a Jazz defense that ranks second in defensive rating (107.3), which is the number of points allowed per game. 100 possessions.
Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers: The jury will still remain out if George can become a consistent playoff performer. But after last season’s battle in the bubble, George has become remarkably consistent through the first half of the season. Sure George has missed a total of 10 games due to the league’s health and safety protocols and some minor injuries. But George has become the only NBA player to average 23.5 points while shooting 45% from 3-point range. He has also stepped beyond the endless trash of various opponents.
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers (damages: Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans): Davis has not become a regular season MVP candidate as I expected. But Davis has still aired All-Star caliber performances with his defense, post presence and chemistry with LeBron James. The Lakers have been sorely missing him for the past week after injuring his right calf, so he deserves the coaches’ voice. But since Davis cannot play, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver must choose Williamson as a replacement for an injury. Silver has more than just self-interest in taking this step. Williamson has become remarkably effective as a goal scorer and playmaker. He has become adept at drawing mistakes and consistently making them.
Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns: As a 35-year-old, Paul has not missed a step this season. Like he did last season in Oklahoma City, Paul has lifted the Suns with his lead and playmaking on the field (a seventh-best 8.2 assists). Paul deserves credit for empowering backcourt buddy Devin Booker by supporting him to take the burden off the scoring load, while also relieving the pressure from him.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Booker has continued his continuous improvement and is on pace to become the NBA’s next star. He averages a team-leading 24.3 points per game and has helped the Suns outcompete opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions when playing. Booker has achieved a great balance between having a growth mindset and exposure to Paul while remaining aggressive to maximize his production on the field.
Notable exceptions: Mike Conley (Jazz), Brandon Ingram (Pelicans), De’Aaron Fox (Kings), DeMar DeRozan (Spurs), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Thunder), Ja Morant (Grizzlies), Christian Wood (Rockets).
– Mark Medina